Ritual – Coming of Age

In modern societies, “coming of age” is a legal concept, but the reality is that there are many rites of passage that produce a very extended adolescence and transition into adulthood: starting secondary education (and in some countries proceeding in turn into high school from junior high or middle school) and completing it; one’s first job, typically several years before schooling ends, especially for those who go on to higher education; various stages of dating; obtaining a driver’s license; becoming old enough to vote and to marry without parental permission (legal adulthood); reaching drinking age military or other national service and/or college; first full-time job; moving away from home; marriage. Some legal children pass some of these milestones unusually early, leaving school and/or home at sixteen, marrying as young as fourteen, having children themselves before they finish school. Many prolong the transition to adulthood by remaining dependent on their parents while finishing their education, or by continuing to live with them after they get their first permanent jobs. In the US, the late drinking age – 21, three years after all other adult rights are attained – legally extends it.

In traditional societies, things are more cut and dried. There are one or two rites of passage and then the person is an adult, with full rights and responsibilities. So Tacitus tells us that among the Chatti and also among the braver of other Germanic tribes, youths would let their beards grow until they killed their first enemy, then “[o]ver the blood and spoil of a foe they make bare their face. They allege, that they have now acquitted themselves of the debt and duty contracted by their birth, and rendered themselves worthy of their country, worthy of their parents.”1 So among the Chatti, a youth whose beard was growing in was in a transitional state, an adolescent; once he had made his first kill and shaved, he was a full adult. In contrast, many traditional societies that anthropologists have studied have boys undergo an initiatory rite, whether individually or as an age cohort, and however long it may last, upon successful completion they pass directly into adulthood. Similarly, in many traditional societies girls become adults once they begin to menstruate and undergo an official rite of transition; but in some they are not full adults until they marry.

Another difference is when this transition takes place. In traditional societies, for both boys and girls puberty is key; and we still see this in the age of bar mitzvah for Jewish boys (13) and the traditional timing of confirmation in most Xian sects. It is impossible to define a traditional age of majority for the Germanic peoples: the Anglo-Saxon lawcodes gave a boy full adult rights at 10, then at 12, which was also the age of majority among the Salian Franks; texts suggest youths first went to war at 15, but there are younger examples in the sagas.2 But 10 – 15 would also correspond to adolescence. And all these ages are several years before current legal maturity.

So we can honor our young people and mark their transition into adulthood at 18, when they attain their legal maturity. And no doubt we always will, and mark their graduations and other successes also. But we no longer have the identity of broader (legal and town/city) community and religious community that the ancient heathens had. If we give them a specifically religious coming of age and count them after that as independent members of their kindreds, precedents suggest it should be earlier, at puberty or at 12 or 13. This is when young people tend to reach a decision to commit to their parents’ religion or to look elsewhere, and it makes possible separate “youth” activities in the kindred, more suitable for those in secondary school.

The new Our Troth has separate chapters on “man-making” and “woman-making,” the man’s written by males and focusing on ordeals and the woman’s written by women and focusing on celebrating her fertility as signaled by first menstruation, and preparing her for womanly tasks.3 As the authors of the woman’s chapter note:

It will be noticed that the woman-making seems less traumatic than the man-making, with less emphasis on the sharp change of status, the death and rebirth elements, and so forth. This is because all of these things are already going on inside the woman’s body. Whereas the man-making is a single intense spiritual/social change marking the slower process of physical process from boy to man, the woman-making is put forth as a somewhat slower and gentler spiritual/social change designed to integrate the single intense physical event which transforms a girl into a woman. 4

Although this explanation goes some way toward explaining what the editors were thinking, I do not think this rigid sexual differentiation, not to say stereotyping of adult tasks, is a good idea. It excludes gay teens, or even adventurous and non-domestic girls and boys who do poorly in tests (which may not necessarily mean they do poorly in genuine emergencies). Also consider that ancient heathen women wielded weapons alongside their men. Tacitus emphasizes that in the Germanic tribes both sexes were equally robust – and raised together in the same way:

In all their houses the children are reared naked and nasty; and thus grow into those limbs, into that bulk, which with marvel we behold. . . . Slow and late do the young men come to the use of women, and thus very long preserve the vigour of youth. Neither are the virgins hastened to wed. They must both have the same sprightly youth, the like stature, and marry when equal and able-bodied.5

Edred Thorsson’s very short treatment of “Becoming a Man or Woman” in A Book of Troth does not separate the male experience from the female in the same way.6 He states that a coming of age rite should be largely mysterious, but that most importantly, the same-sex parent should give the child a gift, which ideally becomes an heirloom in which the kin-fetch descends through the generations. The only distinction he makes between the sexes is to suggest a weapon such as a sword for a boy; and I think it fair to ask whether it is in our tradition, or necessarily good for any modern reason, to restrict weapons to boys.

This is not to say that there are not “male mysteries” and “female mysteries,” or that families can’t and shouldn’t, within the family, prepare their children for future roles as men and women and celebrate them. But tribal/community coming of age or puberty rites can be seen as having two purposes: initiation or instruction, teaching the young people to be adults or sharing mysteries with them, and testing or proving, having them demonstrate that they are. Otto Höfler made much of the testing in his theory that there must have been initiatory male secret societies among the ancient Teutons such as we see in many indigenous cultures,7 and the concept is basic to the approach in the Our Troth “Man-Making” chapter. But the ordeal in an initiation is not just a test, it also typically aims to induce a receptive state in which ancestors or spirit guides instruct, empower, and welcome the initiand. Hence such trials as fasting, exposure, sleep deprivation, and hallucinogens. Heathenry is not a mystery religion, and a young person should have had many opportunities to commune with the gods and wights before this rite of passage. Similarly I believe most parents, clergy, and kindred members will have already tried to help them learn what they need to know; a period of sequestration to learn the mysteries of adulthood may not, perhaps should not be necessary, and in any case there will be a few more years for them to ask questions and have learning experiences. And nor is it an objective to winnow out anyone as somehow “unfit” for adulthood!

So while I agree that the mysteries of sexuality should be discussed first and foremost between mother and daughter, father and son, and that first menstruation is an obvious natural rite of passage that should be marked, I do not think a boy’s physical maturation should be in any way slighted either. Both sexes undergo both dramatic and subtle changes. And one of the essentials of the passage to adulthood is the increase in options: we must in the end allow a child to define her or his own sexuality, and to choose how domestic or how adventurous to be; what we can share is experience, advice, and examples. And especially since the child will not be a legal adult for several more years, a puberty ceremony should focus on celebrating their independence and welcoming them to more mature participation in the family and kindred.

One coming of age ceremony that a father shared on an e-list some years ago seems to me a good example. His son underwent it and I believe his daughter later did too. The youth goes out alone and makes a campfire at a pre-determined site. (If the family or kindred has that tradition, s/he could first go hunting, dress the kill, and bring it to the fire site). S/he builds a fire and sits waiting as night falls. Family friends/kindred members go one by one to the fire and the youth invites each in turn to take a seat at her/his fire; each brings words of advice and a gift, then leaves, and the next approaches the fire.

An alternative approach would be for the youth to do something for the kindred, or the family: a community “graduation project,” if you will, rather than a household/hospitality one like the above. S/he could lead a kindred blót in token of adult commitment to heathenry and to the kindred, and then to be welcomed into full adult membership. This more intellectual type of ceremony might be more appealing to some teenagers, whereas others might vastly prefer a demonstration of outdoorsmanship followed by one-to-one conversations in the dark over extended public speaking. Of course, depending on the kindred the teen might already have led blót many times, or that might be exclusively the goði’s role. An alternative idea would be for the teen to redesign the family website. Or s/he could build a piece of furniture or do a piece of embroidery for the kindred. As with school and college graduation projects and Eagle Scout service projects, coming up with the idea to express one’s own ideas and fill a need would be part of the teen’s demonstration of maturity and seriousness and expression of self.

In any event, I suggest some family and/or kindred token of membership: a book, a hammer of a particular style, formal blót garb, or indeed a sword, spear, or gun. At one time teenagers were given their first wristwatch at this stage in life, but that has become superfluous. Whether or not the kin-fetch descends via heirlooms, such gifts have megin/mægen, and they are a tangible token to the teen and others that he is an accepted and valued member. And if the teen takes a new name to mark the occasion, a name-gift should be given according to our tradition.

Modern heathenry gives a high priority to community, so I envisage most parents raising their children within a kindred. The coming of age ceremony should therefore continue with the youth affirming or oathing as a full member of the kindred in the manner of someone joining it as an adult.

And I think I need to emphasize that since our children do not leave home at 13, or even necessarily at 18 – and we do not want them to abandon their parents or their wisdom at any time – coming of age in any sense is not the end of learning, or the height of contribution. People continue to grow in maturity, experience, and wisdom. Just as parents and kindreds should begin teaching children cooking, lore, woodcraft, honour and the other thews, and respect for the other sex – for others in general – long, long before they are adolescents, learning and self-discovery of all these kinds should continue through the teen years and beyond. (Many people, in fact, have developed tastes for household skills, or outdoors skills, well after 13.) Coming of age in a heathen kindred is a marker near the beginning of a long path, and the ceremony should be a beginning – an initiation – as much as congratulations on having achieved something.

1) Super sanguinem et spolia revelant frontem, seque tum demum pretia nascendi rettulisse dignosque patria ac parentibus ferunt; Germania ch. 31, Thomas Gordon translation.

2) Information taken from the “Man-Making” chapter in Our Troth, v. 2, 2nd ed. Berkeley: The Troth (North Charleston, SC: BookSurge), 2007, ed. Kveldúlf Gundarsson, chapter contributors Andy Mendes, Snorri Laurelson, James Graham, Hagar Olson, Bill Bainbridge, Ben Waggoner, p. 247.

3) “Man-Making” as cited above, pp. 247-57; “Woman-Making” pp. 259-63, chapter contributors Elizabeth Grey, Ságadis Duncansdóttir, Laurel Mendes, Diana L. Paxson.

4) p. 263.

5) In omni domo nudi ac sordidi in hos artus, in haec corpora, quae miramur, excrescunt. . . . Sera iuvenum venus, eoque inexhausta pubertas. Nec virgines festinantur; eadem iuventa, similis proceritas: pares validaeque miscentur; Germania ch. 20, Thomas Gordon translation.

6) St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1898, p. 155.

7) Kultische Geheimbünde der Germanen, Frankfurt: Diesterweg, 1934. See Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, v. 2, 2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1956, repr. 1970, pp. 494-501.